Monday, September 19, 2011

Is Stress Effective?

Some call it stress. Others call it anxiety. Whatever you call it, it can be such a drain on your emotions.

I've studied a lot about stress for my current degree, and what I've learned has really helped me in my walk with God.

God gave us stress so we can realistically deal with situations that are dangerous. If a lion is chasing me, it would be dangerous for me to remain too calm. I need to run like crazy and get my blood pumping so that my muscles can work flat out until I'm out of reach from the lion. This is typically known as fight-or-flight mode, something your body does in reaction to a perceived threat. Your body kicks into high gear to help get you through a possibly life-threatening situation. But we have a big problem: our body can go into this mode over a perceived threat that actually isn't threatening.

For example, when thinking about a big final coming up in 3 months, my body can enter stress mode. My heart starts pumping, my mind starts racing, and I can barely sit still. It's like my body thinks its about to run for its life, all the while I'm doing nothing more than sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned room. My body trusts my mind to evaluate threats realistically, and so it reacts to what my mind is telling it. If my mind says, "This is really scary and I don't know if there's a way out!" then my body will react accordingly. We might even feel threatened by something that may or may not happen in the future, something like a nuclear holocaust. So, the problem is not my body, but my mind.

The biggest problem that happens in my mind is seeing tasks in my life as insurmountable. I think about all the homework I have to do, or a sermon I need to prepare, and my mind says, "This is too much! I don't know if I can do it!" and therefore my body goes into high stress mode, regardless of if those tasks are actually insurmountable... or not.

For whatever reason this is a particularly common problem in our current society. We're highly stressed and anxious, even though we live in one of the most comfortable times in the history of mankind. The problem isn't circumstances, but rather our incorrect evaluation of those circumstances.

For people who struggle with perfectionism (like me) this tends to be a crippling thing in their lives. Everything becomes an almost insurmountable threat, because I view every goal as only able to be accomplished perfectly. Thus, I tend to put everything off till the last possible moment because I'm afraid that if I start on it that it won't be perfect, so I shouldn't even begin. Of course, almost none of this comes out in concrete thoughts, but it's still there.

I sometimes wonder if sermons can do more harm than good. Take evangelism, for example. A preacher stands up and tries to motivate people by reminding them how big a deal it is that people are lost and need Christ, and then he gets semi-panicky that we had better do something right now! (I have preached this sermon.) His heart is in the right place, but I'm afraid it can produce the opposite intended effect in his audience. What they're hearing is, "This is a really big deal, and there will be terrible consequences if you don't do something!" So what happens is that evangelism actually becomes far more intimidating than it previously was, and therefore impossible. When, as a Christian, evangelism should be something I do out of a genuine love for others, not out of a sense of divine panic.

I could go on about a lot of applications with this idea. For me the most practical one is training my mind to see every goal and task as obtainable with God. A phrase I try to think about daily is, "No task is insurmountable with God." This helps put things in perspective for me. Making tasks and goals as large and intimidating accomplishes nothing but stressing me out and rendering me incapable of actually attaining them. That just wastes my time and makes me miserable. So, instead, I have to go to God in prayer reminding myself that He's bigger than my problems, He'll see me through regardless of how badly I perform at something, and at the end of my life the bottom line is that I'll be home with Him. And I certainly won't be thinking about all the tasks that seem so threatening now.

I pray this is an encouragement to those of you who struggle with stress and anxiety every day like I do. Just remember: No task is insurmountable with God.